The shortage of STEM ( Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics ) graduates is well documented, as is the gap between the skills employers expect graduates to have and those the curriculum delivers.  Respondents in the 2014 IET Skills Survey highlighted the lack of practical skills as the primary reason STEM degrees do not meet the needs of their organisation when recruiting.  So this raises the question; “how do you improve the practical skills of STEM graduates to meet the needs of industry?”

One approach to address this problem is participating as a team member in a student competition. Student competitions provide an opportunity to gets hands-on with a real-life engineering problem: designing a car, or building a robot, for example.  The problems presented don’t have a pre-defined solution giving participants an opportunity to explore and put the theory they’ve learned into practice, often using industry-standard tools.

I’m sharing my experiences and the value I gained as a former Formula Student team member and advisor, but the points I raise are applicable to all student competitions.  For those that don’t know, Formula Student is an educational motorsport competition designed to inspire young engineers.  It challenges university students to conceive, design, build, cost and compete as a team with a single-seat racing car in a series of competitions.

Learning Outside the Classroom

I learned a lot during my time as part of a Formula Student team, too much to mention in a single post.  However, the single most important learning outcome for me was to understand the responsibility of being part of a team and to rise to that challenge successfully.

Here’s how my experience was relevant and tangible to my career.  I was one member of a team of three, responsible for chassis, driver interface and bodywork.  Our work was central to the development of the car and the wider team needed to be able to attach their parts to our interfaces: suspension, motor, control units, vehicle network and even sponsor stickers.  This taught me a core lesson that others were depending on me and I couldn’t afford to mess it up!

Crucially I also learned that precise communication, meeting deadlines and seeking feedback from the wider team is key to success. Without knowing it at the time, I was developing the core skills of project management.

(Literally) Getting Your Hands Dirty

In addition to the personal lessons, I see three major benefits of participating in student competitions that help graduates kick-start their careers.

   1. Hands-on experience with a real-world project

The scope and complexity of student competitions are huge – bigger than any project faced at university. Automotive competitions such as Formula Student or Eco Marathon include all the different project components that are faced in industry, ranging from budgeting, marketing, managing stakeholders, product design, development and testing.

Team members gain the practical skills required to succeed in their careers including hands-on engineering skills that bring the theory they’ve learned in the classroom to life.

The tasks and challenges Formula Student teams face are exactly the same as those of a Formula 1 or any other professional racing team. For us engineers that tend to focus on the detail of our own component, it is sometimes hard to see the bigger picture. The quality of a race car is not the sum of its individual technical solutions, it is the interactions between these parts that matters. This means that solid integration of good solutions is better than perfect solutions that are fragmented.  With this in mind, the role of project management within a team is key.  To be successful, engineers need to step out of their cave and make sure the overall project is running smoothly. Handling that is often the greatest challenge for Formula Student teams.

Another problem student teams have to overcome is employee turnover. Depending on the university structure, students stay in Formula Student teams between one and three years, which means between 30%-100% of the team can change after each season. Maintaining knowledge levels of the team during these transition periods is crucial. Experience shows, teams that plan for this and have an effective hand-over and ramp-up strategy have more success in the long-run.

   2. Personal motivation and the drive to succeed

There is a huge difference between being asked to execute something (say, a homework assignment or a little bit of research), and an idea that we come up with and the pleasure of making it happen (for example, problem-solving as a team a new chassis design that needs to be 30% lighter and 20% less expensive).

To be successful at university, you can strive for excellence in the exams, you can extend the further reading or over perform in assignments.  But even then, the satisfaction might be limited by the fact that you have just done what your professor asked you to do and hundreds of other students have done before.  The opportunities for innovation or to push the boundaries are limited.

Being successful in a student competition is so much harder.  You are competing against other teams, and you are not working in isolation, an entire team that has to work together. There are many more opportunities to draw on your skills and strengths, scope to explore new solutions and transform design.  And at the end you have created a proper piece of hardware, a Formula race car that can make you proud.

Doubtless, there is no better motivation than mastering your own project and the learning outcomes are larger than when working through the pre-defined problems and solutions of a lecture. It also teaches you skills that are harder to teach in a classroom environment – teamwork and critical thinking for example.

   3. Industry involvement and recognition

Many large commercial organisations are already involved in supporting student competitions.  This involvement ranges from sponsoring individual teams, providing access to facilities or industry standard equipment such as software, to high-level sponsorship of the competition itself. Organisations see the value in student competitions as a way to foster the engineers of tomorrow.

From a student’s perspective, building these relationships with organisations early can be beneficial in their job hunting. Getting hands-on experience with industry standard tools gives them a head-start on the job and saves training time. Ultimately, that an individual has participated in a student competition is attractive to employers and including it on the CV can only be beneficial.

A Continuous Victory Lap

Doubtless, my Formula Student career helped me obtain my current job. The skills and experience I gained are core to my day-to-day role in industry. I’m not the only one; two of my Formula Student team members joined Formula 1 teams after their graduation.  In addition, I often consider the connections I made during Formula Student as candidates for job vacancies as I know the skills they have gained map to those we require.

For me, the value student competitions offers in providing the practical skills and experience needed for future careers is immeasurable.  But please don’t get me wrong: understanding the theory and performing well in exams is a prerequisite for performing well in extracurricular activities. The knowledge you obtain in the classroom is the backbone of your skillset.  The skills acquired in a student competition are the cherry on the cake.

Are you taking part in a student competition this year, or have you competed in the past?  What’s the number 1 thing you learned?  I’d love to hear your experiences.

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